I’m not gonna lie, I studied Russia this year mostly because she was a major power during World War II. I’ve always felt like Russia was kind of a jerk country, that bully with the hick haircut and bad teeth that makes life miserable for others. So I guess Russia has always been the backwards, mean kid on the playground. And I wasn’t totally wrong…or right. Let me explain.
‘Tis the season for eat, so for this very reason I didn’t go to a Russian restaurant. I just don’t have the free calories (or meals) to do it. Not that there’s a huge selection of Russian cuisine here anyway. However, I did cook traditional Russian food: Beef Stroganoff:
Apparently sour cream really makes this dish. In fact, Russians put sour cream on everything. Probably the way we put ketchup on everything (except sour cream doesn’t have high fructose corn syrup so is probably healthier). Also I heard Russian sour cream is better than our American version. This dish, heavy in the mushrooms because I love love love them, was surprisingly simple and delicious. Basically it’s beef stock (though you could probably just use water in a pinch),whole grain mustard, onions, mushrooms, beef, and butter…and then magic!
Before getting into my very tumultuous feelings of Russia, here’s a brief overview of the country (thanks to A Brief History of Russia by Michael Kort):
- Long before Moscow was a thought on the map or St Petersburg had crawled out of the marshland, Kiev was a city of power. Ironically, it’s a Ukrainian city now, not Russian. But back in the 9th century A.D., it formed Kievan Rus, the rise of Slavic power in the area and the birth of what would one day become Russia.
- Unfortunately, the Kievan Rus principalities did a lot of fighting among each other and didn’t keep an eye on Mongolia
- The Khans of Mongolia, the Golden Horde, the Tatars indirectly ruled Russia for centuries from 1240 to 1480.
- During Mongolian rule, Muscovite (now Moscow) gained power and swallowed up the other principalities.
- Ivan the Terrible was the first tsar (1547-1584). He was also likely insane.
- The Romanov dynasty begins in 1613 and ends in 1917, three centuries of repression.
- While Peter the Great (1682-1725) and Catherine the Great (1762-1796) reformed and modernized Russia, they were also cruel to the serfs and believed in autocracy. The latter had almost no rights, serfdom that was closer to slavery.
- Even the serfs were finally emancipated in 1861, they still had no money and land obligations, effectively changing nothing (except perhaps making the tsar feel better about himself).
- 1905 Revolution fails, but is a taste of what’s to come.
- Russia enters World War I in 1914
- 1917 Bolshevik Revolution topples the monarchy. After a few years of Civil War, Lenin and his Red Army come out on top and establish the Soviet Union.
- The Soviet Union barely routes Germany in World War II. Although the end of the war leaves her as one of the two world’s superpowers, her socialist economy and communist government fail it.
- Meanwhile, from 1929 to 1953, Stalin is the dictator of the Soviet Union and has millions of people murdered over his 24-year reign of terror. Things get slightly better once he dies.
- Communism and the Soviet Union (and the Cold War) implodes in 1991.
- However, even once a “democracy” is established, there’s very little freedom for the people and too much power in the central government.
What Russia Has Taught Me:
Like Poland, Russian peasants didn’t start out in the dire straights in which we found them in the last few centuries. They were once much more free and then digressed. But their digression, their loss of rights and even humanity, is the worst I’ve read so far. Russia has taught me that:
- Russia has a mystical, magical side. But through the lack of education among the peasants on one hand and the Westernizing of the noble and elite on the other, that has magic has largely been lost. However, Russian tradition contains beautiful fairy tales that speak about the basic elements of humanity: fear, love, and bravery (The Bear and the Nightingale).
- A few significant events in Russian history, especially the rule of the Golden Horde, left scars on Russia. It turned a free(r) society into one of autocrat rule and absolute power (A Short History of Russia).
- This autocracy and brutality scarred generations of Russians, especially those who lived through the brutal uprisings and tumult of the early 1900s. That time is an example that no person—regardless of wealth or rank or education, is above suspicion and is liable to be shipped to Siberia to labor until death in shudder-inducing conditions (Doctor Zhivago).
- Despite the corrupt, overbearing socialist government of Russia during the 20th century, her citizens still came to her aid in times of need. The people of Leningrad and other Russian cities and towns suffered and survived a great deal during Germany’s invasion. It was probably because they were used to suffering…centuries of it (Leningrad).
- The ordinary citizens, the shopkeepers and farmers, turned into Partisans to make life miserable for the Germans. These were some of the same people who first hailed the German army as liberators, which tells you how bad their lives had gotten underneath socialism (Finding Zasha).
- The Soviet Union wasn’t just the victim of German dishonesty and trickery. She was one of those devils in the hellish non-aggression pact. Her slice of the pie was the Baltic States. The Soviet government deported millions of people to Siberian work camps where most died and a very few lived, and fewer yet lived to be freed by Stalin’s successor 12 years later (Between Shades of Gray).
Russia isn’t that snaggle-toothed bully; the majority of Russians are victims of the few, the corrupt, the evil, the wicked. Like Stalin, the author of between 10 and 20 million deaths (not to mention the 27 million dead of World War II). What I’ve really seen, though, is that a country who doesn’t learn from her mistakes is bound to repeat them, and Russia seems to be on the verge of repeating them. Instead of real freedom, the people are oppressed by an overweight, power-hungry government. Even now.